I am having trouble uploading photos from my Sony Ericsson camera phone to the PC at this Internet center. Some of these systems have old version of Windows operating system and they don’t automatically when the phone is connected via USB. So today there will be no update of travel photos at Flickr although I will upload at the next possible opportunity.
Yesterday and I today I have had a rare insight into the tribals who live at the foothills of the Eastern Ghats. It was an experience that I will cherish for a long time but it was not exactly planned at it turned out.
After leaving Rajamundry two days ago, I meant to visit Chintapalle where there are some tribals. However, there was no direct bus to this place and I was told to take a bus to Tuni and change. I am having the rare gift for choosing remote places for which getting there in itself is a great feat. I was in mood to spend lot of time travelling. I wanted to get to my destination quickly. So I took a straight express bus to Vizag.
At Vizag, I had a quick lunch and took a bus to Borrah Caves. These caves are near Anantagiri. Further up is the Araku Valley, a popular place for seeing some tribal villages. Train is a better way to get to the caves. By bus, it is a long bumpy ride in a crowded bus. Don’t expect a city crowd in this bus. You will get villagers and some tribals too. You will sit next to sacks bulging with their load. You will meet simple village men, who wear nothing more than boxer shorts and a kurta, carrying live chicken in their hands. When these people converse, you will not understand a word and wonder silently.
I got off at the village of Muliyaguda in the Anantagiri mandal. Surprise. The caves are 6 km from this village. No buses go there. It was already close to five and the light will start fading any minute now. I have to first sort out accommodation. This village is just a assortment of shops catering for passing travellers. I enquired a man doing particularly nothing. In villages and towns, there are many such men. There are the best candidates because they are only too happy for conversation. At worst, you will only interrupt their silent reveries.
This person, Kala Appa Rao, said that Muliyaguda had no rooms. Rooms are available at Anantagiri at Rs 1300 – 2000 per night. I was not going to spend that much. In these situations, act desparate even if you are not. Act surprised as if someone had told you that rooms would be available. So I feigned a measure of disappointment and desparation. Kala Appa Rao thought for a moment and asked me to follow him.
We crossed the bend of the road – there is only one road through the village and only one bend as it enters the village – and entered a wine shop. The owner, Appa Rao, was a middle-aged corpulent chap. He was a man of few words. He gave me a cautious look. He sought out in me a potential customer clearing out his stock of cheap country wine. Apparently he was the brother of Kala Appa Rao. They exchanged a few sentences and settled the rent at Rs 150. I was to have the room after all. I was only too glad. The customary routine of checking the cleanliness of the room before taking one was dispensed with.
There are shared jeeps that go to the caves. They charge Rs. 10 for locals and Rs. 20 for outsides. Kala Appa Rao is a resourceful chap. He introduced me as his friend to the jeep driver. I was to be considered a local. Useful savings of ten rupees but the whole experience is priceless.
The caves are wide and deep. Stalactites and stalagmites are everywhere. Limestone deposition is striated and columnar in many places. Rocks wear their skins coral-like. The damp air and the cold interior is enough to send a visitor to distant stone age, a silent musing of the way our prehistoric ancestors must have lived in caves like these. When momentarily the timed lights go off, you are left standing in complete darkness. Only the occasional flutter of the bats high up break the vast silence of the caves.
The real problem was that the sun had set. All the shops had closed. One woman, by the light of an oil lamp had a stock of bread loaves. I bought one. It was to be my frugal dinner for the night. There were no more jeeps at the caves. I had to walk back to the village in darkness, a somewhat risky expedition. As I started out on the walk, a jeep passed by. I got a ride. The driver demanded twenty rupees.
I pronounced the magic words, ‘I am a friend of Kala Appa Rao.’
They had no effect. So twenty rupees was paid for the ride. There was no power at the village. I sat out the hours with the wine seller and Sathyanarayana, an old man of 75 with more than 35 years of experience in the mining industry. Villagers call him Pandrugarru (Brahmin). He has worked primarily on calcite mines (near Borrah Caves) but the region is rich in iron and bauxite as well. He has worked in all departments – crushing, blasting, transporting. All the years of blasting had left him a little hard of hearing. While we waited for power to return, his beedi smoke filled the air, his little luxury to keep out the cold.
Pandrugarru turned out to be a useful chap, full of initiative and genuine hospitability. He expected no reward. To him, I was a genuine guest and not a nameless tourist. The lights came back but went out again later. He brought for me a kerosene lamp. The next morning he woke me up with loud knocks at six. Actually, I was already up.
‘Hot water or cold?’ he enquired.
‘Cold,’ I replied half in hesitation. I wasn’t planning to bathe this morning. The bathroom was not clean. It was full of cobwebs and their eight-legged builders. Clearly the place is used rarely.
After the morning routines, I bought him a cup of tea. Village tea was good. I then visited his house where I was treated to another cup. A little passage leads to his house of three main rooms. By half six, the courtyard and passage are swept clean, sprinkled with water and decorated beautifully with traditional South Indian kolam. These villagers may have little but they have neatness in things they do. Problems of cleanliness are more in the slums of cities.
After a little introduction to his grandson and some stories of his family, we visited on foot a couple of villages nearby. These villages are inhabited by tribes. Understandably they are not as isolated as before but they still retain many things that are different from the way we live. Women will gather in the morning at a village well. Through fields of yellow flowered oil seeds, the women will fetch water in their pots balanced so precisely on their heads. A woman will soap and wash her naked daughter in the open, which the latter cries at the touch of cold water. A man sitting on the floor with his legs splayed out, will roll barks of tobacco. He wears only a little piece of white cotton cloth between the legs.
After thanking Pandrugarru, I ventured on my own to Anantagiri, some 3 km away. The hills in between make way for an easy and rewarding hike. En route I passed another tribal village but this time I was alone. Not knowing the language is a real problem when cultures are different. The tribals stare suspiciously. Even a smile can be misconstrued. I waved at a girl but perhaps I was taken for a lunatic or a pervert. I would have loved to walk into one of their mud houses or take pictures of the women who are defined by the unique ways of their dress and jewellery. I knew the way to Anantagiri but on the pretext of making some conversation I asked for directions. I got a vague reply that they understand only Telugu or Oriya. Not good. With some sign language and a little help from one who knew some Hindi, I bid them farewell and continued uphill. Just then a woman was coming down balancing on her head seven pots filled with water.
I had breakfast at a resort at Anantagiri, took a bus back to Muliyaguda, packed, was treated by Appa Rao to a cup of coffee, tipped Pandrugarru for his services – he was happy but I think he was happier in the very act of his service – and took the bus to Araku.
‘Sit on the right. You can see the valley,’ Appa Rao ventured. He has been here for 25 years. It is not often that he gets visitors.
At Araku, I visited the tribal museum. Some things I had seen in the actual villages were in the museum. Here they are collection. In villages, they are real life sampled first hand. I enquired for accommodation but somehow I felt I should move on.
Before leaving, I was wondering if I would ever get a chance to take a picture of a tribal woman. I board an auto-rickshaw to the station. Just then, eight tribal women board the same vehicle. I am suddenly surrounded with opportunities. I am going to take one shot and make it last. I have t pick the right model. This one is too modern and may not even be a genuine tribal. Next to me, she is too close for proper framing. The other lady is too far and the one next to her is not wearing the traditional necklaces of snake-tipped earrings (nagaru). The background is too bright for that one. Finally I picked on the women sitting opposite me. After mumbling a few words, gesticulating with my camera in hand, I met no strong reactions. No disapprovals. I pointed and clicked. Bad one. The women had closed her eyes. Once more. Much better. The camera was handed out to the women amidst a train of giggles.